“The Neighbour”

Domestic rhythms and innovative art

“The Neighbour”

Photo: Hallvard Bræin / Jo Strømgren Kompani
“The Neighbor” is a multimedia production, a hybrid of dance, film, music, theater, visual art, and design—all within the confines of the walls of an apartment.

Brooklyn, N.Y.

During these coronavirus times, my television has become an intimate friend. I recently discovered the All Arts WNET channel, which was launched by PBS in late 2018, offering 24-hour television and streaming. 

WNET’s programming “aims to illuminate the emerging to the established, the hybrid to the pure in dance, film, stories, music, theater, visual art, design, and all other forms of creative expression.”

One program that intrigued me was a Norwegian multimedia performance piece scheduled for Friday, April 24. I waited in anticipation for this collaboration between dance and music set in the genre of film.

The Neighbour

Photo: Hallvard Bræin / Jo Strømgren Kompani
The production takes place in an apartment complex in Bergen, Norway.

The dancers

Of course, dance performances are often filmed. But the choreographed movements in the film are by no means how we envision traditional dance. There is a good deal of theatrical movement incorporated,  a smart and fitting form, as it allowed for the couple’s story to be told in a more realistic language.

The work is organized into vignettes or snapshots of two dancers, a couple (identified as he and she), interspersed with cuts to a piano-playing neighbor.

The production begins with a pan of a stunning staircase and foyer filled with packing boxes. The camera then leads into the interior of an expensive, classical early 20th-century apartment graced with warm wood floors, intricate moldings, and expansive rooms, all beautifully lit.

The movement begins with the sound of smacks and slaps, abruptly breaking the serene beauty. A neighbor’s day is interrupted by the noise, so he opens his front door to see what is happening. He goes back inside and proceeds to play his piano. A mere wall lying between him and the couple next door, who are engaged in spitting and wrestling. 

Now alone, the female hears the soothing music from her neighbor and communicates by tapping on their shared wall. The neighbor listens intently, his cheek pressed to the wall, so intimately. They are as close as two people can be without touching, but he does not respond.

The section where he spins upon the edge of expensive elegant wainscoting, while trapped by the decorative ceiling, in concept, was reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s famous ceiling dance in the film Royal Wedding (1951), in which Astaire defies gravity. In contrast, this dancer is entrapped by the walls themselves: they—the room and its domesticity—are all pressing in on him, captured in a short but moving shot.

The mattress, a poignant symbol for a couple, serves as a prop. They lie on it, pivoting from tenderness to the isolation one experiences in an intimate relationship. Precariously perched on the wainscoting edge, the male holds his partner under her arms, she dangles suspended in the air, like a rag doll, held and trapped, bound to him. She tries to break free, thrusting her legs into the air in exhausted resignation.

The dancers crisscross the hallway without connecting: metaphorically spot-on. At one point, the male dancer tries to escape from the apartment, running up the serpentine stairwell with the female chasing from behind. A long narrow hallway offers a constrictive but compelling duet.

Expressing entrapment perfectly, he is almost like a fly, stuck to the wall, trying to break through one of the ceiling’s corners. The entire relationship is danced like a ballet of hide-and-seek.

Because this is experienced through film, flashbacks and cuts, which would be impossible to incorporate in a traditional dance performance, it enhances the emotion. 

Throughout, the two dancers, Line Tørmoen and Dimitri Jourde, were a wonderful pairing, athletic and agile, able to epitomize layers and subtleties of feelings through their movements and collaboration.

Leif Ove Andsnes

Photo: Hallvard Bræin /
Jo Strømgren Kompani
Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and choreographer Jo Strømgren were at one time neighbors in real life.

The pianist

But it is the pianist who truly leads the audience emotionally through the piece with the rich tones and textures he plays with nuance. 

At times, he seems to be playing louder to drown out and keep out the tension and violence from seeping in from next door. At other times he leaves his bench and his bubble to peek out from his front door. The music is lush and melancholy, with a hint of yearning, the perfect choice to accompany the dancers living out their relationship. It ends with a musical crescendo juxtaposed by the couple’s fingers tenderly touching, his bowed head nestled in her open hand. 

The idea for this project evolved from a real-life fact. Choreographer Jo Strømgren and renowned pianist Leif Ove Andsnes were neighbors at one time. Strømgren, who choreographed the piece together with dancers Tørmoen and Jourde brought the idea to Andsnes. 

Originally, the executive producers had planned to use a Bach composition. Andsnes understood their reasoning, but he thought Czech composer Leoš Janáček’s “In the Mists” would be more interesting, because the melody fit well psychologically. As he explained, “It just throws you from one character to the other, from very intimate to angry, slow to fast. And it has something bittersweet, sour-sweet, about the harmonies.”

Breaking boundaries

The performance segment of the program is preceded by producer Arild Erikstad’s brief interview with Andsnes and Strømgren. When Strømgren was asked about using his Bergen home as the set, he called himself a masochist and explained how he had to move out and then back in. And he added, “I am not doing it once more.”

When Erikstad asked Andsnes about working with performers from other artistic sectors and why that was important, Andsnes responded: “I think I’ve learned a lot from it. … how can a more normal concert be different, how can we do it with lighting or small theatrical aspects to make the music come more directly through to the listener.” 

For Andsnes, it is difficult to create this intimacy in the concert hall, where the experience is different: “It is not so easy these days to come to a big concert hall and there’s just a piano and a pianist 100 feet away and you’re supposed to be overwhelmed by this music, I think these other aspects might help us sometimes to get more into the sound.”

Strømgren was asked about how it was to cooperate with a TV director for the project. He elaborated, “My experience has been to collaborate … [in] sharing ideas. … I don’t really know how it is to work in the traditional way, to please a director. … We don’t know who’s doing what anymore.” 

The director also had several opinions about choreography “I think that anybody who makes a hard-core career in one field is always missing the chance to be childish again, to do it the naive way to reinvent the wheel.”

And the reinvention is a success, an innovative collaboration to be highly recommended. You can experience it for yourself online under the All Arts WNET channel.

This article originally appeared in the May 22, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.